Zhang Hongzhou,

China is building and equipping a South China Sea fishing fleet for its maritime militia, with more armed fishing boats bolstering its muscle in the disputed South China Sea, a specialist told a meeting at the Center for Naval Analyses (CNA) Wednesday.

Equipped with armed civilian fishing boats, China’s maritime militia is one of the less understudied agencies in the exercise of Chinese maritime power – ordinarily utilizes regular citizen and a civilian fishing vessels for a scope of missions from saving stranded vessels to conducting controversial island landings. While voices in China have since a long time ago called for their inclusion in activities, this would be the first time that the militia would get its own fishing fleet, a help for the world’s producer and exporter of fish and consumer of seafood.

“It creates the impression that China is building a state-owned fishing fleet for its maritime militia force in the South China Sea,”  Zhang Hongzhou, partner research kindred at Singapore’s Rajaratnam School of International Studies, told a crowd of people at the two-day meeting on Chinese maritime power.

The growing role of the Chinese maritime militia in fishing activities is not so much new. In reality, as early as 2013, during a visit to Tanmen fishing town in Hainan Province, President Xi Jinping told maritime militiamen that they should “not only lead fishing activities, as well as gather maritime data, collect oceanic information and support the construction of islands and reefs” A first line of defense in support of Chinese interests in the South China Sea.

Xi’s speech added momentum to the development of the maritime militia,  with numerous coastal cities setting up units and voices calling for more bolster and resources dedicated to preparing and training fishermen to become a militia army and building new vessels.

But the move to build a state-owned fishing fleet for the maritime militia in the South China Sea is “a new phenomenon,” Zhang said. Having their own particular fleet means that China’s maritime militia will no more need to depend on leasing the fishing vessels of fishermen or fishing companies to carry out their activities.

China’s maritime militia

In Zhang’s perspective, the movement by the Chinese government mirrors Beijing’s growing frustration about its inability to manage fishermen.After a series of growing problems, including recurrent complaints about low pay for involvement in government initiatives –, for example, securing the Chinese oil rig during the incident with Vietnam last year – the central government has chosen to progressively control and direct its own activities.

“They can’t manage the fishermen,” Zhang said.

As to their motivation, there is little uncertainty in Zhang’s perspective that they will be used to consolidate China’s position in the Spratlys.

In addition to the attesting Chinese claims there, the Spratlys are likewise a profitable fishing ground for China, with one government study demonstrating more than 1.8 million tons of fishery resources in waters close to the Spratly Islands, with yearly catch-able sums around 500,000 to 600,000 tons.

“These vessels, obviously, will be sent and deployed in the Spratlys,” he said. as cited in a report by the Tokyo-based Diplomat.

In any case, Zhang has likewise been cautioning that the growing use of the maritime militia could actually intensify regional disputes and undermine Chinese interests.

Zhang said that maritime militia could utilize patriotism as a spread to embrace unlawful exercises including poaching coral reefs, ocean turtles and other endangered species which risks China’s international image. They could likewise carry out brazen operations in disputed waters even going beyond China’s nine-dash line, thereby stoking regional tensions and territorial strains with neighboring states.

“This practice risks hijacking China’s foreign policy and undermining relations with neighboring countries,” Zhang wrote.

How China addresses these risks remains to be seen since the specifics of the fleet are still unclear – down to its very size and the timeline of its development. China’s Hainan Province, Zhang noted, has ordered the building of 84 large militia fishing vessels for Sansha City. Ten fishing vessels will be delivered in 2015, and the fleet currently has only four vessels. The full development of the fleet is thus likely to take some time, “It will take some years.”Zhang admitted.

By: Jason E.


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